Cash-back services: Do they really work?

After several years of putting these services to the test, the verdict is in.

Cash-back sites like Extrabux can score you cash rebates from loads of online stores.

Photo by Rick Broida/CNET

As the Cheapskate, I'm frequently asked to share my favorite money-saving tip. When I do, it's frequently met with skepticism:

"That sounds too good to be true."

"There's no such thing as a free lunch."

"You can't get something for nothing."

Yeah, I get it. It does sound too good to be true. But what's the reality?

The tip in question: "Use a cash-back service for everything you buy online." These services work much like cash-back credit cards, paying you back a percentage of your final purchase price. That percentage may be small (just a point or two, though sometimes more), but it adds up.

Let me explain by way of example. Recently, Groupon was selling the refurbished first-generation Apple Watch for $179.99 after applying a coupon code. That's already a pretty good deal, but with a cash-back service, it could get even better.

Specifically, Ebates was offering a 9-percent rebate on all Groupon purchases. That would bring the effective total down to $163.79 -- an extra $16.20 in your pocket.

What's the catch?

Up to six percent back on Walmart purchases? Yes, please!

Photo by Topcashback

In exchange for what? You're not going to get $16.20 for nothing; surely there's at least one string attached. You have to pay an annual fee, right? Sign up for a bunch of offers? Surrender your firstborn?

Nope, nope and nope. If there's a catch, it's that you don't get your rebate right away. As with old-fashioned (and comparatively awful) mail-in rebates, there's some waiting involved: Payouts usually occur every 90 days or so. But then you get a check (or PayPal deposit), and it's like found money! Which is, of course, the best kind of money.

OK, but is it really worth jumping through a bunch of hoops just to save, say, one percent? Especially if the thing you're buying is only, say, $20? Maybe not, but as noted in the Groupon example, sometimes the rebate percentage is substantial. And the hoop-jumping is pretty minimal.

How they work

Ebates is one of the few services that will let you search for specific products, not just stores.

Photo by Rick Broida/CNET

Indeed, cash-back services are a piece of cake to use. They're literally a couple extra clicks on your way to shopping wherever you're already shopping.

Let's go back to the Groupon example. Maybe you discovered that deal via a Groupon email, or maybe you read about it on a great deals blog. Whatever the case, you're looking at the Groupon site, and ready to make your purchase.

Then you remember: "Oh! Cash back!" So you head to your preferred service, in this case Ebates, look up Groupon and discover a decent rebate. Score! From there, you simply click the "Shop Now" button (or whatever is the equivalent), which takes you back to Groupon -- but with the cash-back service's tracker working in the background. Then you make your purchase like you normally would.

And that's it. There's literally nothing more to it.

That said, I've learned a few things in my years of using cash-back services, so allow me to share some important tips.

Don't freak out

First-time users often go bananas because there's no immediate evidence that the service "worked." You don't see the rebate reflected anywhere in your shopping cart (it's a rebate, not a coupon code), and you don't get any direct indication from the store. For all intents and purposes, the cash-back service is an invisible part of the process.

What's more, it may take several days -- even as long as a week -- before any record of your purchase appears in your cash-back service dashboard. Again, this is normal.

You should, of course, keep tabs on your purchases, because trackers can sometimes fails to catch them. I haven't encountered this myself, but I've heard from readers who have. If that happens, you can submit a claim to the service, keeping in mind this may or may not bear fruit.

Turn off your ad blocker

Because cash-back services rely on browser cookies for tracking, and because ad blockers block those cookies, using an ad blocker can interfere with your rebate. In other words, it might make your purchase "invisible" to the cash-back service, thus preventing you from getting credit for that purchase.

The solution: Pause your ad blocker when you go shopping. I don't mean whitelisting the cash-back service's domain -- I mean pausing it globally so there's no risk of interference. Remember: All the tracking happens behind the scenes and you don't want anything to get in the way.

Be patient

As noted above, you should receive a cash-back confirmation within a few days of your purchase, but don't expect your actual cash until much later. Most services work on a 90-day payout structure. This is in part to prevent people from abusing the system (buying something, getting a rebate and then returning it for a full refund, for example). But there's an added benefit: Your rebates will add up to a bigger payout.

Always try to double-dip

citi-cash-back-card.jpg

Use a cash-back credit card on your purchases to double up on rebate savings.

Photo by Citi

Suppose you're able to save 5 percent on a big purchase using a cash-back service. Score! But you may be able to get an even better deal.

For starters, look for other discounts, like in the Groupon example above. If you're able to find a coupon code, by all means use it! Just apply the code at the checkout page like you normally would. Obviously your rebate will reflect that discounted price, but ultimately you want the lowest total you can get.

One caveat: Be sure to read the cash-back service's terms before you click through to the store, as there may be exclusions when other discounts are applied. If that's the case, you're usually better off choosing the coupon code. It's always better to get, say, 10 percent off upfront than 2 percent later on.

Even better, pay for your online purchases with a cash-back credit card. That's a guaranteed additional rebate. And if you can somehow leverage all three? Triple-dip savings for the win!

Shop around

Befrugal, Couponcactus, Ebates, Extrabux and Topcashback are the largest and probably best-known cash-back services, but there are many others. And within all of them, cash-back rates can vary.

For big purchases in particular, it pays to shop around. If you're spending, say, $500, and Ebates offers 5 percent to Befrugal's 3 percent, you're looking at a $25 rebate instead of $15.

Yes, there's a bit more hassle involved this way, as you have to sign up for and keep tabs on more services -- but that extra effort can yield bigger returns.

Use a browser add-on

A big ol' rebate from Groupon? Who knew? You did, thanks to the Ebates Cash Back Button.

Photo by Rick Broida/CNET

As I mentioned previously, the big "hoop" you have to jump through is visiting the cash-back service's web portal, then clicking through to the store. But you can even avoid that step if your preferred service has a browser plug-in.

For example, the Ebates Cash Back Button immediately notifies you if there's a rebate to be had at whatever online store you're visiting -- then lets you claim it without leaving the store. Befrugal's Couponomatic is a browser toolbar that works similarly, adding coupon alerts to the mix. Extrabux offers a plug-in as well.

I recognize some folks don't like the idea of a toolbar or add-on tracking their web movements, but these tools do save time -- and ultimately save money as well. They're entirely optional, though, so you can always stick with the go-to-cash-back-site-and-click-through method if you prefer.

Do they work? Yes, they do

Still skeptical? There's not much more I can say to convince you, except perhaps to note that I've claimed literally hundreds of dollars in the past couple years -- money I simply wouldn't have gotten if not for cash-back services.

Your mileage may vary, of course. But I'm a huge believer in the cash-back option, and a big fan. With very little personal information up front and just a few extra clicks in your shopping process, you stand to get extra money back. It's a no-brainer, and an essential part of the cheapskate lifestyle.

Your thoughts?

Close
Drag